Monday, April 27, 2009

Anecdote of the Week: Not a Good Experience, but Not a Bad Picture

The Siren reads Virginia Heffernan's "The Medium" column on Sundays in the New York Times Magazine, and she usually enjoys it. This past Sunday, Ms Heffernan took up the topic of Website comment sections, using as an example the comments on Anne Applebaum's column in the Washington Post. The Siren does not read the Washington Post columnists, as their politics frequently give her a twitch in her right eyelid, but it seems that the people who post on the WaPo site lack respect for Ms Applebaum's credentials, do not engage with Ms Applebaum's writing, are rude and occasionally bigoted and probably post just to see themselves "published." And the Siren absolutely could not relate. Part of that is a question of scale, of course. Still, the Siren does love her comments oasis here. The post on The Private Affairs of Bel-Ami turned into a small discussion of Directors Behaving Badly, and whether indeed most of them ever behave any other way, and the tribute to Jack Cardiff eventually segued into a discussion of the very notion of "auteur." 

If Ms Heffernan gets tired of the mosh pit of WaPo comments, she is more than welcome to stop by and pull up a virtual armchair. So the Siren says, once more, many thanks to her wonderful commenters, and she is contributing to the two discussions by posting an anecdote that relates to both prior topics merely by being about Fritz Lang. It's from Henry Fonda's long interview in Hollywood Speaks, the highlight of a very good book. He was an actor who was interested in the process of moviemaking and alert to the different methods and goals of the directors he worked with. Fonda was very aware, for example, of what lay behind Wyler's notorious retakes. That does not mean, however, that Fonda could suffer Fritz gladly—not many could. But the Siren always thinks, reading this particular passage, that Fonda did understand what was making Lang tick. He just didn't want to deal with it. So here is Fonda, discussing Lang in general and The Return of Frank James in particular. Mike Steen asks Fonda if he was happy making that movie.
No. Because again, it was Lang. Oh shit, he came to me with tears in his eyes and said he'd learned his lesson and so forth. Why Zanuck ever thought he would be the right kind of director for a Western I don't know, 'cause he wasn't at all. He was the same man he'd been on the other one I did with him, You Only Live Once, in the sense he was preoccupied with his camera. He painted with his camera... In The Return of Frank James I had a scene where I come into a barn hunting down John Carradine, who has killed Jesse. I had to come in to a point, look around, hear something and exit. That's all there was to the scene. We were about five hours doing it because Lang decides he wants cobwebs from the overhead beam down to the post that stood where I had to stop for a moment. So they send to the special effects department, and a guy comes down and blows cobwebs around. It's easy to do. But then Lang would come in and break holes in them to make them look like old cobwebs. Pretty soon he was breaking so many holes that the entire thing collapsed, and the effects guy would end up having to do it over. I sat there watching. By this time I knew Lang so well I would make bets with guys that we would be three hours, fucking with the cobwebs in a scene where I come in and stand for two seconds, then walk out!
Fonda goes on to talk about filming near Lone Pine and encountering a beautiful fallen tree. John Ford, said Fonda, would have "said 'Oh shit!' and put a tripod down and shot it. But not Lang." Lang made the crew move the enormous log and then ordered a camera platform built to change the angle. Fonda got off easily, however, considering he said Lang also killed three horses on the location by forcing them to run too hard at high altitude. "So it was not a good experience," said Fonda, "but it was not a bad picture. Somebody saw it on television the other night and told me they enjoyed it. Anyway, I didn't enjoy working with Fritz Lang."

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Images to Infuriate Delacroix: Jack Cardiff, 1914-2009

Jack Cardiff, the supreme genius of Technicolor, has died in Kent, England, age 94. Cardiff said that if he hadn't become a filmmaker, he would have been a painter. With him dies another link to a film process that gave us images like this.

The people at Technicolor, wrote Michael Powell, had usually encountered filmmakers accustomed to black-and-white, people who listened while the Kalmus crew told them what Technicolor could and could not do. The Technicolor folks had a surprise in store from Cardiff, who had worked in the laboratory for years and was "able to tell Technicolor where they could get off."

"Now," said Powell, "they were dealing with painters, which was a very different thing."

For his inventions, imagination and sheer audacity, there has never been another colour cameraman like Jack Cardiff. Georges Perinal was the best camaerman I have ever worked with, both in black and white and in colour, but Jack was something apart. The skin textures in the close-ups of Colonel Blimp would have delighted Fragonard, but Jack's lighting and composition in Black Narcissus and The Red Shoes would have infuriated Delacroix, because he couldn't have done any better himself, in imagination or in chiaroscuro.
--Michael Powell, A Life in Movies

Monday, April 20, 2009

Surreal Sanders: The Private Affairs of Bel Ami (1947)

The first thing that strikes you about George Sanders' filmography, after you get over its length, is that he worked with a lot of great directors. Renoir, Hitchcock, Mankiewicz, Duvivier, De Mille, Ulmer, Siodmak. Three good movies for Douglas Sirk, two more good movies for John Brahm. George Cukor, albeit on the misbegotten Her Cardboard Lover. Otto Preminger, for Forever Amber and The Fan--and wouldn't you have loved to see Preminger trying his Prussian dictator act with the unflappable Sanders? For that matter, the Siren yearns to learn whether Sanders bothered to hit any of Fritz Lang's chalkmarks on Man Hunt, or if he just raised an eyebrow and stood where he jolly well pleased. The Siren does know, thanks to Brian Kellow, that Sanders infuriated Joan Bennett by sitting in the director's chair and letting the ladies stand. If you knew nothing else about Sanders, this alone would confirm his sang-froid. I mean, would you sit in Fritz Lang's chair?

Sanders did great work for many of those directors, and even in the lesser movies he was never boring. But he gave three of his best performances for a director judged guilty of vulgarizing literature and "cultural evangelism" by Andrew Sarris and called "that idiosyncrat" by David Thomson. That would be Albert Lewin, the man at right in the still above, a vividly original artist whom the Siren thinks merits more consideration than he usually gets. Of the three Lewin/Sanders films, the Siren ranks The Moon and Sixpence third, although it's interesting and deserves a better fate than the cut-rate DVD currently circulating. The best is The Picture of Dorian Gray, a supremely atmospheric evocation of Oscar Wilde that spooks the bejesus out of the Siren whenever she catches it. Sanders is perfect as the mephistophelian Lord Henry Wotton, who lures Dorian into degradation only to recoil at the results. It is as hard to imagine another actor as Lord Henry as it is to picture Gary Cooper playing Addison DeWitt.

So the Siren has now seen Sanders in The Private Affairs of Bel Ami, which languishes in only-on-crappy-VHS hell. Some say this is his best performance. It isn't--the best are still Addison and Viaggio in Italia--but it is excellent all the same.

The Siren has mentioned her love for Guy de Maupassant, one of those writers Hollywood was always adapting with merry disregard for the fact that the Production Code kept his best bits off-screen. Lewin, who started as a producer, must have known Joe Breen was never going to countenance the ending of the original novel, wherein homme fatal Georges Duroy marries the daughter of his boss and looks at all he has wrought without a trace of self-reproach. Lewin must also have realized he would have to add some version of True Love for his amoral hero because the studios always wanted some lovers around, whether the star was George Sanders or Groucho Marx.

Still, it's easy to see why Lewin would choose this novel. For one thing, the setting must have been irresistible. Lewin takes on the Belle Epoque with the eye of an art collector, and as in all of his movies, he creates a dreamy parallel world where you are supposed to believe in the aesthetics, not the history. The sets on Bel-Ami look like sets, the backdrops look like backdrops, the proportions of the rooms are always slightly off and not one street or cafe recalls anything the Siren has seen in Paris. Probably the underlying reason was a low budget, but the Siren firmly believes that Lewin knew exactly what he was creating with production designer Gordon Wiles, art director Frank Paul Sylos and cinematographer Russell Metty. The effect is still beautiful, like watching characters in dollhouses. You aren't supposed to look and say, "Ah yes, that's exactly what Paris looked like in 1880." Rather, Lewin signals the lack of reality at every turn--this is a fable, decorated with a moral that you can either accept or snip off like the ribbon on a corset.

Sanders' Georges Duroy is nicknamed Bel-Ami by the women he climbs over to get to the top of Parisian society. The Siren's favorite line comes early on. "I have need of a stout stick," says Duroy at the beginning, as he looks at a Punch doll, "to beat my way." He even repeats that bit of subtlety not three minutes later.

Duroy starts his ascent by accepting a job from his friend Forestier, played by John Carradine, whose characters always look as though they are dying of consumption even when they aren't. In Bel Ami, Carradine coughs and signals another tubercular turn, although he is good in the part. Duroy realizes Forestier is dying. Duroy also sees quickly that his friend's writing owes a great deal, maybe everything, to his clever wife Madeleine (Ann Dvorak, a perfect Art Nouveau beauty and delicious in the role). Duroy sets his sights on marrying Madeleine, to the point that he proposes to her by Forestier's deathbed almost before that unfortunate gentleman has completed the formality of dying. Madeleine accepts, and they become quite the Parisian power couple, until Georges is ready to move on via an affair with his boss's wife (an affecting Katherine Emery).

Madeleine tries to ease her loneliness with an affair, and Georges arranges to have a photographer catch the lovers' assignation. (Did Sanders file this idea away for future reference?) In the book Madeleine sleeps with a minister; in the movie it's Duroy's sworn enemy Laroche-Mathieu, and Bel Ami has thrown her together with him. As soon as you see that Laroche-Mathieu is played by Warren William (looking rather ill in this, his last role) you realize Duroy is a gone goose. But before the tale ends, with a well-executed duel, Duroy will dump his boss's wife and attempt to marry the boss's daughter.

Are you confused? Because I forgot the subplot about Bel Ami buying a title. Not to mention the love of faithful Clothilde, who meets Bel Ami early on, falls in love with him and thaws his heart a bit, but not enough for him to stop his cheatin' ways. Can she save his soul?

Clothilde is played by Angela Lansbury, here in the full flower of her peculiar, doll's-head beauty, and almost as moving as she was in Dorian Gray. She has great chemistry with Sanders, particularly in a scene where she persuades him to take her to a down-and-dirty boîte--very Toulouse-Lautrec, just as a later scene will evoke Manet. Lewin manages great fake-out shot, panning over a seemingly passed-out woman. The music starts, the woman picks her head up off the table, and it turns out she's the floor show, as she sings the Bel-Ami theme song that recurs through the movie.

Before that, Sanders and Lansbury dance the can-can in one of the Siren's favorite Sanders moments of all time. He and Clothilde are dancing away very nicely, and for a minute he looks almost grim, even as he's kicking (and he had a pretty good leg extension, did George). Then his face softens as--for the only time in the movie--you see Duroy thinking hmm, this is...what is the word I'm looking for...tip of my tongue...hop-kick, hop-kick...why, it's FUN. The Bel Ami/Clothilde romance takes on life after that. Duroy's behavior toward Clothilde will get worse, and her devotion to him less explainable, until you think back to this moment.

Bel-Ami is the spiritual cousin not of Lord Henry, but of Dorian, a man whose sexual allure makes him both art object and instrument of destruction. In Dorian Gray, Hurd Hatfield's affectless beauty and near-uniform line readings keep things abstract; in the Private Affairs of Bel Ami, that's the job of the sets. Sanders was good-looking and he had that prowling baritone voice, but he didn't have Hatfield's perfect face. So he has to convince us of Duroy's sex appeal by some other means.

In the first scene, Duroy has just returned from being a soldier in Algeria. He enters a sidewalk cafe and brushes past a seated woman. She looks up, likes what she sees and saunters over. Sanders barely bothers to size her up--aside from sex, she can give him nothing, so she is nothing, and at first he brushes her off like Cardinal Richilieu dismissing a scullery maid. And, despite the fact that the character is a Frenchman, moreover a Frenchman who has been in the army for several years, you believe it--that Sanders is instantly appealing to a pretty woman, the brush-off, everything. The force of Sanders' charisma is that strong, and it's there because he doesn't care that it's there. And when he goes back to her, and gets her a drink after all, and she beams at him, it makes sense as well. "I've noticed that women take to men who have the look of wickedness," he muses.

More than the air of bored cynicism that Sarris cites, what made Sanders the ideal actor for Lewin was his presentational style. Sanders was so much wittier, so much more clued-in than anyone else on screen that he skewed reality just by showing up (that is, until he met his match in Roberto Rossellini). There are only a handful of actors who could give as much zip to a witticism ("I disapprove of hypocrisy in other people") no matter how labored or wordy.

In addition to deliberately overwrought art direction, Lewin always worked from ornate scripts. And when Sarris and Thomson disparage Bel Ami as too literary, they miss the irony. Duroy speaks almost in a series of epigrams, and yet Duroy can't write. An early, well-shot scene shows Duroy in his meager flat, trying to write an article commissioned as an act of kindness by Forestier, and Duroy can't do it. He has to enlist Madeleine, who in turn has been helping Forestier write all this time as well. Duroy is an artist without artistic talent, working instead to create a life of perfect selfishness. In this he will no more succeed than he does in writing an article, and for that reason the Code-mandated ending works for Lewin's Bel Ami, even if it turns Maupassant's novel upside-down.

Thwarted love and thwarted art is something that pops up, in Technicolor, in all of Lewin's movies, from the burning masterpiece in Moon and Sixpence, to poor lovelorn Basil's Picture of Dorian Gray, to the Flying Dutchman painting the same face down the centuries. In Bel Ami, the Technicolor picture is an anachronistic Max Ernst.

This cheery daub, according to a very amusing blog post, was chosen in a publicity contest sponsored by Lewin's production company. Pitting Surrealists against one another was Lewin's idea of how to lure the American public. No wonder he eventually went broke. The Ernst picture is an obvious summary of the temptations gnawing at all the characters, but it's also a typical Lewin flourish, another way of jolting the audience out of comfy notions about a period piece. How many other Hollywood filmmakers, in 1947, were deliberately reminding the audience of the artificiality of the very thing they are watching?*

The Siren really, really liked this movie, for Sanders, the dialogue, the strong female performances, and for the intoxicated and (yes, Mr. Sarris) evangelical way Lewin throws his artiness at you. Unfortunately, the VHS copy provided to the Siren by an extremely kind reader doesn't do it justice. It's like watching a movie through clear Jell-o. The Technicolor shot of the Ernst looks like early Tex Avery. The even more delirious, equally original Pandora and the Flying Dutchman got a restoration and revival last year, courtesy of Martin Scorsese and George Eastman House. Is it too much to ask that someone complete the reassessment of Lewin, and release a restored Bel Ami?

*Perhaps we will get the answer from the excellent 1947 Project at Category D.

Note: Clear, marvelous images from The Private Affairs of Bel-Ami, as well as some publicity stills, are available at this comprehensive Ann Dvorak site. In particular, dig the fantastic set here, the Siren's favorite in the movie, and the composition here and here. The catch: hideous watermarks. However, the site's proprietor says that she will send un-marked scans to people for personal use.

Monday, April 13, 2009

10 Favorite Heretofore Unmentioned Movie Characters

The Siren has been feeling glum. Unable to gather thoughts on dear George. Aweary, aweary. All day within the dreamy house, the doors upon their hinges creak'd (and then slamm'd as the kids stomped in and out) and the Siren said, I got nothin' today. And then over she went to Flickhead's site and found she had been tagged. A meme! Reason to live! Reason to post!

Thanks, Flickhead.

So here's the idea, via The Film Doctor: 10 Favorite Movie Characters. Clearly this is impossible to do in any complete sense--who can do a definitive 10 favorite movies, let alone characters? But you can pick 10 that you particularly love. And so the Siren did.

And for kicks, the Siren decided to borrow a conceit from the spectacular If Charlie Parker Were a Gunslinger, There'd Be a Lot of Dead Copycats: The Heretofore Unmentioned. So the Siren is picking characters who have gotten, at most, a mere glancing reference in her posts before. That makes it a bit more sporting.

Here we go. Yodel-ay-ee-hoo, on the comeback trail.

1. Lenore (Eleanor Parker), Scaramouche
Lenore, the smart, resourceful actress, is so much more enjoyable--and beautiful--than simpering Aline (Janet Leigh) that it absolutely kills the Siren when Stewart Granger makes the wrong choice. Wrong, wrong, wrong choice, do you hear me? But Lenore, she'll be all right, as the filmmakers show clearly with a delicious fadeout. Not tonight, Josephine! (The above picture blatantly stolen from Bob Westal's wonderful piece on Scaramouche, and Lenore, at Forward to Yesterday.)

2. Annabella Bonheur (Martha Raye), Monsieur Verdoux. A brief stroll around the Web reveals this is still a love-hate movie. You may put the Siren squarely in the "love" category. She thinks it's a masterpiece. (She has excellent company.) And how very, very sad it is that Martha Raye rings a bell more for her commercial-making, producer-suing, somewhat dotty old age than for this performance. Annabella is a remarkable creation, a character so annoying you start guiltily rooting for the homicidal Verdoux, and yet you also can't get enough of her. One of the few occasions when anyone stole a scene from Charlie Chaplin. Scene, hell, the indestructible Annabella almost walks off with the movie.

3. Laura Partridge (Judy Holliday), The Solid Gold Cadillac. A still-relevant movie about accidental activist Laura Partridge, played by Judy Holliday at her funniest. There aren't many actresses who can send the Siren into fits of giggles just by raising a hand at a shareholder meeting. While this isn't the best movie Holliday made, Laura gets the Siren's vote for Holliday's most "relatable" character, with more native intelligence than Billie Dawn, far more gumption than Gladys Glover and a great deal more feminist edge than husband-shooter Doris Attinger in Adam's Rib. "You're scared of girls," she tells Paul Douglas--how many men in high places still need to be told that?

4. Lora Mae Hollingsway (Linda Darnell), A Letter to Three Wives. Darnell was usually (mis)cast as a femme fatale, but she never seemed to bare her fangs enough to tear into the type. Despite her fiercely sensual looks, her good-girl qualities remained visible around the edges. So she was perfect casting for this comedy of manners, as a siren from the slums who is seeking not just fortune, but love and ladylike treatment from a boor. In all the many celluloid sex-battles, there are few things as satisfying as watching Darnell count out the beats that will force Paul Douglas to open that car door for her.

5. Mary Smith (Jean Arthur) Easy Living. A character name so dull it could only belong to one of the most appealing screwball heroines ever. Mea culpa, Tonio and others. There isn't enough Jean Arthur on this site. How the Siren treasures this movie, and her favorite moment is pure Jean, delivered in that unforgettable voice: "Now wait just a minute, Santa Claus!"

6. Baines (Ralph Richardson) The Fallen Idol. Richardson is sometimes described as an uneven screen actor, but this performance is absolutely flawless, as is the character of Baines, married to a harridan, in love with Michèle Morgan (but who isn't) and spinning out stories for the lonely little boy in the embassy: "Some lies are just kindness."

7. Ivan Dragomiloff (Oliver Reed) The Assassination Bureau, Ltd. An offbeat, flawed movie that is one of the Siren's great guilty pleasures, largely due to Reed's silky performance as the gentleman assassin. Dragomiloff is essentially a Russian James Bond, sexier than Connery in the Siren's heretical opinion, and demonstrating that the Bond role really should have gone to Reed at some point. Dragomiloff is a professional killer, but one with a conscience, a practical nature and great wit. Asked by Diana Rigg to explain why he wants to prevent war, Ivan responds, "How can we charge our sort of prices with everybody happily killing each other for a shilling a day?"

8. Josef Tura (Jack Benny) To Be or Not to Be. If Addison DeWitt is the ultimate critic, surely Joseph Tura is the ultimate actor.

Josef Tura: Someone walked out on me. Tell me, Maria, am I losing my grip?
Maria Tura: Oh, of course not, darling. I'm so sorry.
Josef: But he walked out on me.
Maria: Maybe he didn't feel well. Maybe he had to leave. Maybe he had a sudden heart attack.
Josef: I hope so.
Maria: If he stayed he might have died.
Josef: Maybe he's dead already! Oh, darling, you're so comforting.

9. Max (Jean Gabin) Touchez Pas au Grisbi. Max has an attachment to his criminal buddies that far outstrips any love for a mere woman, even one played by an unbelievably young Jeanne Moreau. Here's when the Siren fell hard for Max: Before an urgently needed talk with Riton, his longtime partner, Max carefully lays out a midnight supper complete with wine, pate and a baguette. Both men tear into the elaborate snack before a word is spoken, making the scene a marvelous little capsule of things to love about the French. They're about to get hammered by a rival gang, but that doesn't mean you can't have wine with dinner.

10. Kasper Gutman (Sidney Greenstreet) The Maltese Falcon. The Siren has seen this movie--well, as many times as most people have, and with each viewing she's more and more convinced that Gutman is the real hero. He's the sex-magnet (Elisha Cook Jr. and Lorre), the real wit ("I distrust a man who says 'when.' If he's got to be careful not to drink too much, it's because he's not to be trusted when he does."), and the real thwarted romantic--ah, Greenstreet's expression as he chips away at lead is the sum total of every man who ever found a cherished love object to be dross. And Gutman is the real knight-errant as well, ready to ride anew at the end: "Well, sir, what do you suggest? We stand here and shed tears and call each other names--or shall we go to Istanbul?" Is the Siren the only one who would far rather know what happens in Istanbul than whether Sam waits for Brigid?

Friday, April 03, 2009

By Popular Demand, All I Owe Ioway

... is what the Siren wanted to post, but it isn't up on Youtube. Someone technological get right on that, all right?

So this, from the Iowa-set musical State Fair (1945), will have to do.

It's a grand night for singing,
The moon is flying high,
And somewhere a bird
Who is bound he'll be heard,
Is throwing his heart at the sky!
It's a grand night for singing,
The stars are bright above.
The earth is a-glow
And, to add to the show,
I think I am falling in love!
Falling, falling in love!

Maybe it's more than the moon,
Maybe it's more than the birds,
Maybe it's more than the sight of the night,
And a light too lovely for words!
Maybe it's more than the earth,
Shiny and silvery blue,
Maybe the reason I'm feeling this way
Has something to do with you!